‘Dangerously Inadequate’ decarbonisation plan

Professor Greg Marsden has tracked the Government’s plans to address Climate Change over the past few years with growing concern about their seriousness and realism

09 May 2024
Greg Marsden: This new court ruling shows that, as yet, there is no robust cross-government strategy to tackle emissions at a whole economy scale
Greg Marsden: This new court ruling shows that, as yet, there is no robust cross-government strategy to tackle emissions at a whole economy scale


The victory in the High Court for ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth and the Good Law Project is hugely significant. It is the second time that our national decarbonisation strategy has been shown to be insufficient and, critically, insufficiently transparent in how it was assessed.

This legal decision follows hot on the heels of two other significant events. First, the abandoning of the more ambitious carbon budget goal for Scotland, after the Climate Change Committee’s review. Second, the successful case brought to the European Court of Human Rights by KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, the group representing older women in Switzerland who argued that a lack of strategy and policies on Climate Change endangered their well-being.

The planet is warming, rapidly. The legislation on carbon reduction is there because it was decided we did not want future generations to face the worst kind of impacts from this. Right now we are beginning to see the legislation bite – because the quick wins have been won. The more difficult part of the transition lies ahead and it requires some hard choices.

This is where the UK Government has fallen short. Not once, but twice.

I can’t say I am surprised.

The Transport Decarbonisation Plan was not transparent on the action required. When I prised the assumptions from the DfT it took a Freedom of Information request and threat of a legal case to get a spreadsheet showing the Department’s workings.

The findings though were clear. If we want to stay within the sixth carbon budget pathway for transport set out by the Climate Change Committee then we need more ambitious electrification uptake than we currently have. This means the ZEV mandate AND significant reductions in vehicle miles.

When the cross-government Carbon Budget Delivery Plan (CBDP) came out, most of this ambition had gone. Even if all of the transport measures were delivered in full, there would still have been a gap of 224MtC (million tonnes carbon) over what the CCC recommended. To put this in context, the drop in emissions during 2020 when we spent much of the year in lockdown was just 24 MtC. This is not a ‘near miss’ but a chasm.

The Government’s response was that it didn’t matter if transport did less, because those savings would be picked up by action elsewhere in the economy. Except that this court judgment shows that across the document there were unrealistic assumptions about delivery

that simply don’t add up. So, transport’s lack of ambition is not compensated for elsewhere.

Why, in particular, does this matter for transport? One of many reasons is that the Department for Transport has been assuming that it can avoid difficult decisions because somewhere else would pick that up.

The thinking was we could avoid change today because of - unproven - technologies like carbon capture and storage coming in the future. The recently adopted National Networks National Planning Policy statement was written on exactly this basis. It states that the Secretary of State only needs to consider the carbon impacts of a road as materially significant to the decision if it causes the whole carbon budget across government to fail.

With this mindset one more road doesn’t make a difference if we have the carbon budget spare elsewhere.

This new court ruling shows that, as yet, there is no robust cross-government strategy to tackle emissions at a whole economy scale. I would argue that, with transport the largest sector of emissions, that statement will continue to be true unless the ambition for transport is higher. This would likely mean not planning for the kind of traffic growth futures we currently are, and therefore, having a different view of the strategic need for infrastructure compared to other policies.

The Plan for Drivers, the oil and gas exploration permits, and the row back rhetoric on decarbonisation more generally, suggests that this Government has no intention of publishing a plan for the economy which aligns with our carbon commitments.

They will probably not want, or need to, this side of the coming election.

The challenge to the next Government will be that with every passing month and year of insufficient action, the task gets even harder.

A different pathway for transport is urgently required. It will need to be both transparent and grounded in action rather than rhetoric as the recent Scottish experience is exposing.

What has become increasingly clear, is that the legal system, and the committed people who desperately want a successful decarbonised future for the planet, will continue to hold our decision makers to account.

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